As anyone who knows Hungerford’s Helen Simpson will testify, she often appears to be in several places at once: whether its chairing meetings or conducting site visits, talking to residents or inspecting playgrounds, Helen is actively involved in most aspects of the town’s life. She is also a mother, which makes its own demands on her time. Feolla Chastanet managed to catch up with her amidst the whirl of activity to ask her a few questions about how Covid has impacted on her life and that of the town and its council. She kicked off by wondering, with Mothering Sunday in mind, if Helen felt that her role in Hungerford was perhaps more than just that of being its Mayor…
You have now been the Mayor of Hungerford for four years. Do you look at yourself as Hungerford’s mum?
AN interesting question. I definitely see my role as something which could resemble aspects of motherhood. I’ve lived in the town all of my adult life so there is a familiarity and a stability which perhaps makes the community feel looked after and nurtured in the way a mother would do. I’ve been told I have “a common touch’” meaning I’m able to interact with everybody equally, ensuring everyone’s voices are heard, not just those who have the confidence to speak up. This was so important to me. I wished to be the friendly face people felt comfortable enough to approach; someone they knew and could trust.
I would be very happy to be remembered as Hungerford’s mum. Why wouldn’t I? It’s certainly the role I’m most proud of in my personal life.
What message do you have for Hungerford for Mothering Sunday?
My message currently, especially in view of the sadness in Ukraine, is simply to hold those you love and care about a little closer. Look after those who are closest to you. Mums aren’t looking for expensive gifts: what they want most is your time. My heart goes out to all those who have sons and daughters currently fighting in the conflict. Hungerford sends strength at this challenging time. To all the mum’s reading this – you are all simply amazing.
You were personally affected by Covid. How did this change your perspective of the pandemic?
I’d probably start by saying I wouldn’t want to catch it again. I was just a week away from having my vaccine booster (I’m clinically vulnerable due to a chronic health condition). Unfortunately, I was hit hard by the virus and spent a month recovering. The hardest part was the isolation from my family and my mental health took a real bashing. Getting Covid made me more determined to support our community, doing whatever I could to make the vaccines more locally available.
I also understand how hard it is to care for someone with Covid whilst keeping a safe distance. I wanted to ensure that Councillors on my team weren’t placing themselves in any danger whilst carrying out their voluntary roles. I don’t think the government took this seriousl:- there are so many volunteers with health issues and yet the government would not allow us to hold our meetings virtually as we’d done so successfully in the first lockdown.
How did Covid impact Hungerford and its regular events?
The pandemic had a huge effect on the council’s civic role. We were unable to hold the annual town meeting or host or attend any community-led events, which is a huge part of the mayor’s role. It was so important to keep the town updated with news about new regulations and to share information about vaccines as well as supporting vulnerable residents. We were very lucky to have a huge pandemic response within our community. This team of volunteers led by a local resident was very successful and I was thrilled to celebrate their efforts with a reception last year.
The council found new ways to communicate with residents; for instance, we produced a booklet instead of hosting our annual town meeting. One of my favourite projects was Christmas lights switch-on video in which many groups and organisations within the town participated. The town still talk to me about it today, especially the ending which saw the mayor blow herself up! Honestly, the things I do to cheer up this community!
Stability was important and I’m extremely proud of the town’s community togetherness. I wasn’t at all surprised by the response – Hungerford knows how to wrap its arms around their community.
In addition to all the civic events you host and attend you also chair council meetings – how do you manage it all?
If I wrote down the number of hours spent on council business, I think most residents would be surprised at the level of commitment. I am always on duty and often reply to emails in the early hours. I have made myself available through social media platforms and will always do my best to support the community.
many people are surprised to hear the role is voluntary and I’m often asked why I do it. My answer is easy; I really care about Hungerford and its future. I wanted to be a councillor who was available and approachable. If I couldn’t commit fully, I would choose to walk away. I hope residents can see my enthusiasm. It really is such a huge privilege and I have an amazing team of staff and councillors who are so supportive. It has been the most rewarding role.
What are the changes the council have had to adapt to?
I think the council has adapted well to changes made throughout the pandemic. Staff were working from home which made us less available to residents. We were holding our meetings virtually to start with but then we adapted and used other platforms to communicate more widely. We had a closer working relationship with West Berkshire Council and with our local retailers. I think the pandemic helped us form better relationships with groups and organisations within the town. Every cloud has a silver lining…
In June we will be celebrating the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. What’s in store?
We currently have a dedicated team of volunteers working on this. Hungerford will be taking part in a national beacon lighting on Thursday 2 June to be hosted by Town Council. There will also be a community picnic on the Croft Green on Sunday 5 June. We hope to bring a little pomp and circumstance to Hungerford with some fun activities and games for the children. The town band and local groups will be participating in the fun. I’m really looking forward to this community event.
What will the year ahead bring?
The town already feels like its woken from a big sleep and I can honestly say Hungerford Town Council has never been so busy, with three large projects planned for 2022. These are, firstly, to give our Croft Field Activity Centre a make-over ensuring the building will become assessable to all users of the facility; secondly, our plans to replace the skate park which is nearing the end of its lifespan; and lastly, in collaboration with the FA, Hungerford Town Football Club, John O’Gaunt Academy and West Berkshire Council, we are working towards installing an all-weather pitch on the school site. This will become a shared facility for the whole community.
This is definitely going to be a busy year for Hungerford and its Town Council. The next event the Mayor will preside over along with Councillors, Chamber of Commerce, Hungerford Hub, Town & Manor and West Berkshire Council the public is invited to attend is the Hungerford Annual Town Meeting on Wednesday 30 March at 7pm at the Croft Hall with refreshments from 6:30. More details can be found here.
For further information on all council activity generally, visit HTC’s website here.